Some employment dispute at Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant college, has attracted some commentary on whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God (with a staff member apparently being dismissed because they asserted this was indeed the case). There may well be more to the employment dispute itself, but I wanted to discuss the proposition itself that Christians and Muslims worship different “gods”, which has attracted a number of evangelical defenders. This defence should be little surprising to any Latter-day Saints who’ve come across evangelical claims that we worship a “different” Jesus. It is surprising, however, how otherwise thoughtful and level-headed commentators have sought to defend the claim, as David French does here. While I agree with this author here that one should be careful about allegations of bigotry, I do think a number of comments can be made in response, as follows:
- French argues his case, as a number of others do, on the basis that Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. The issue comes that Jews, at the very least, also do. Do Jews also worship a different God?
- Some evangelicals (such as Al Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist), accept that implication, which is at least logically consistent if supercessionist. That view, however, is inconsistent with what the New Testament itself says where, for example, Paul himself speaks of how he worships “the God of my fathers” and has “hope towards God, which they themselves [his opponents] also allow” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul recognises that the religious authorities in Jerusalem regard him as following “a heresy”, but doesn’t claim that he is worshipping a different God. In fact Paul goes further when addressing the Athenians, a pagan people, when he identifies the “unknown God” who they “ignorantly worship” with the True and Living God (Acts 17:23).
- Others, recognising the major problems of supercessionism, assert that Jews and Christians do worship the same God. However, this is logically inconsistent. Both Jews and Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarianism. Muslims at least accept the prophethood of Jesus, so might be seen to be preferable by those terms. If someone is making the claim that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God because the Muslims reject the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and yet rejects the same claim when applied to Jews who reject the same things, then there is clearly some logic being applied that is not being spoken out loud. It’s up to those making the claim to clarify their position.
- Of course, a number of Christians, while accepting the divinity of Christ, also reject Trinitarianism, including Latter-day Saints but also many others, including Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the present, and Arians and others at the time of the great controversies in the Fourth century (not to mention all those before Trinitarianism was formally defined). True to form, at least many evangelicals in the comments seem inclined to say they don’t worship the same God either. This in spite of the fact that the New Testament doesn’t teach Trinitarianism, and the fact that in my own personal experience many self-proclaimed Trinitarian evangelicals are actually modalists (i.e, they believe the persons of the Godhead are actually roles of one being, who manifests differently as the Father, Son or the Holy Ghost).
- Some base this claim on different texts: namely that as Muslims have the Qur’an (and, as some are quick to add, Mormons have the Book of Mormon), they must worship different Gods. To which doubtless Jews could add that the Christians have the New Testament too, and since Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have different scriptural canons, the implication is that they all worship different Gods. While there are evangelicals who pursue this approach, this is clearly nonsense.
- This is nonsense because one can believe different things *about* someone, and yet still be talking about the same person. Someone might believe Elvis got abducted by aliens and is still alive, but while that’s nonsense, they’re not talking about a *different Elvis*. As a Latter-day Saint, I definitely believe different things than an evangelical Protestant does (although they generally don’t understand, and sometimes misrepresent what those differences are). But when I talk about Jesus being the Son of God, being born in Bethlehem, and who was crucified for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, I’m not talking about some other guy who happened to share the name and did some of the same stuff.
- This is not to underestimate some of those differences, some of which are big and very important. I do not believe, for example, as some varieties of Calvinism do, in a God who created people so he could predestine them to hell. As a latter-day saint, I affirm the divinity of Christ, and believe Jews and Muslims to be mistaken on that issue. Likewise with those Christians who believe in a God without body parts or passions, or the many moderns who believe in a God who may exist but does not reveal himself or work miracles (the mistakenness of this opinion being one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon). But that doesn’t mean we’re not speaking about the same deity. Paul again goes even further, stating that God “hath made of one blood all the nations of men” and that “they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God wants us to repent, but will bless all those who humbly seek after him according to what knowledge they have.
- I have no idea why evangelicals in particular seem so keen to claim others worship “different gods” or a “different Jesus”. It’s doubtless behind whatever trend leads them – rather uniquely – to set up organisations and paid ministries dedicated not to preaching their own beliefs, but attacking the specific beliefs of other groups. One would hope in their desire to follow the Bible they’d recognise the example of Paul above, and consider that its more important to get right, and hopefully lead others in that direction, than to prove others wrong. That’s really for them to sort out though, although in my more mischievous or peevish moments I can’t help but wonder at how they claim the mantle of “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, when their beliefs and institutions are so much younger than the Catholics, Orthodox and so forth.
As for my own brief suggestions on studying the religions of others, they can be found here.